Virginia in Peking

Last week the College opened an office on the campus of Peking University.  It is located on the fifth floor of a state-of-the art building, overlooking a stately courtyard, surrounded by stunningly beautiful modern academic buildings that keep springing up, as the Chinese are wont to say, like bamboo shoots after the spring rain. We expect to put this office at Peking University to good use to facilitate research collaboration and faculty and student exchanges between the two universities.

At the ceremony for signing the agreement, President Casteen spoke of the growing bond between two great public universities.  The parallels between the two places are numerous. The University of Virginia was founded not because Thomas Jefferson wanted another shining beacon of enlightenment and secularism but because he felt the university was a prerequisite for the survival of the Republic and the American Revolution that had given birth to it. The creation of Peking University was also an act of desperate hope, seeking to establish modern learning in order to revive an ailing nation in a world dominated by the Western powers. In both universities academic freedom was to be the guiding principle governing the conduct of all their affairs.

But Peking University has had a more turbulent history. Academic freedom in the best tradition of the German research university (which is essentially what was sought at Peking University) was grafted onto the body of a Chinese tradition where the intellectuals actually laid claim to power. It turned out to be a combustible combination. In traditional China, intellectuals (or the literati) came from local landed gentry and, upon passing the state examination, they became government officials. Thus the intellectuals in China identified with the state, and took a certain responsibility for its welfare. This sense of political agency took new forms at the newly founded Peking University.

Throughout its history Peking University produced intellectuals, leaders, and rebels of every conceivable political stripe, and was responsible for triggering major social and political movements in China. A birthplace of the May Fourth Movement which gave cultural expression to Chinese nationalism, it also spawned Chinese communism by producing a number of founding members of the Chinese Communist Party—even Mao Zedong worked there as a staff librarian. In addition to Communist leaders, it also produced nationalist thinkers on the right and liberal thinkers somewhere in between. Nearly all major historical events involved agitations on its campus, whether be it the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square protests.

Thomas Jefferson famously said that the University of Virginia will be based on the “illimitable freedom of the human mind.” He also followed that “for here, we are not afraid to follow truth where it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

At Peking University, reason is still not fully free to combat the errors of its complex history. But it is claiming its rightful place as one of Asia’s greatest universities, and it is teeming with scholars from all over the world, engaged in all kinds of cutting-edge research. The Chinese government accounts for nearly one quarter of global funding in scientific research—and the beneficiaries are the universities like Peking University, China’s flagship in higher education. When I see their science laboratories, my jaw drops, not just because they are state of the art, but also because they are able to build them at a fraction of what they would cost in Charlottesville. With such vigorous investment in research and scholarship, China is finally returning to its greatness, again putting intellectuals and learning at the center of its civilization.

At the moment of this historical turn, I am full of hope for the future and for greater collaboration between our two great institutions.  When students from all over China and around the world walk down the hall of that beautiful building to arrive at a sign that says, “University of Virginia,” they may appreciate the truth so eloquently described by Jefferson: “That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature . . . like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.”

2 Responses to “Virginia in Peking”

  1. Lynne Crowley says:

    I am glad to hear about this association with Peking University because of China’s growing influence in the world, as well as, the fact we have a daughter adopted from China, who may one day go there through your partnership.

    Thank you!

  2. Robert Arnow says:

    Thanks for this entry. I enjoyed reading it. I foresaw the rise of mainland China in 1969, while in my 4th year at the University.

    Robert Arnow
    BA, A&S, East Asian Affairs